Edition 6: Strike Day by Marie DesJardin
Marie DesJardin’s Strike Day deservedly took first place in the 2012 Story Quest Short Story Contest as the judges felt that she sensitively wove an apocalyptic event into a person’s – and family’s – everyday life. It juxtaposed the worst possible of events with daily life, and a man’s love of his family. GH
Nate woke earlier than usual. He lay still, his gaze tracing the rough-cut boards that formed the ceiling of his bedroom. Pat either noticed his shift to consciousness, or was wakeful herself. She turned her head on the pillow, her eyes meeting his through a downy mass of hair. For a moment they simply looked at each other, then she leaned forward to kiss him lightly. The gesture had a feeling of finality, and Nate quickly turned away.
Pat stroked his hair. “So. Any change of plans for today?”
Nate stared at the ceiling. “Milk’s got to be delivered.”
“It might miss.”
Pat hesitated. “I suppose.”
Nate couldn’t answer, just lay there feeling the weight of it. What would happen, would. It was just so disappointing. After surviving two pandemics, the oil crash, and the fragmentation of the United States into regions, to have their newly formed world destroyed now seemed the last cruel laugh of a universe out to crush them.
Of course that wasn’t the case. The universe bore them no animosity. Life would go on; humanity would survive somewhere. Nate only regretted, like an ache in his gut, that after all their trials, that place would not be here. Their quiet Northeastern village would soon go the way of the dinosaur, for the same reason.
He threw back the covers. “See you on the village green.”
She squeezed his hand. “Don’t be late.”
He looked her full on. “I won’t leave you alone.”
She smiled weakly, and let him go.
Out in the shed, he put on the shoulder strap and dragged his little wagon up the road. Mrs. Flaugherty had left two jugs, her usual haul, outside the barn door. Nate added them to his cart, and pulled it over to Tom’s.
Tom had three jugs set out. Usually he had four. Nate walked into the barn.
The cows had already been released to pasture. He followed noises to the back of the barn, where he found Tom hovering over his little Jersey, whose milk usually sweetened the batch. Sides distended, the cow puffed, rolling her pretty brown eyes.
Nate leaned against the stall. “It’s her time, eh?”
“Yep.” Tom gave her bony hip a pat. “Poor little lady. She would have to pick today.”
Nate watched Tom work. “Will you make it to the green later?”
Tom studied the cow’s swollen sides. “I’ll stay with her till it’s over— in case it doesn’t hit us.”
Nate wanted to shake Tom’s hand, but the formality of the gesture felt awkward. Besides, Tom was busy. Sighing, Nate walked back outside to complete his route.
He reached town shortly past nine. The townsfolk gathered around his cart somberly as they picked up their usual orders.
Carlos brought him up to date. “George was up all night tracking it. JPL’s put together a radio network around the globe. They send out updates every half hour.”
The solemnity of the crowd made Nate’s question superfluous, but he asked it anyway. “What do the updates say?”
“The same. It might hit us and it might miss.”
“If only we’d saved a few rockets—”
“It wouldn’t help. Even with the pre-collapse technology, we wouldn’t have been able to push this beast out of the way— not without a few more years’ warning. And during the troubles, who wanted to bother tracking asteroids?” Carlos looked at the pitcher in his hand. “I guess this will be the last milk delivery, eh?”
“The moon’s still a variable.” Everyone looked at Lauren, the baker’s daughter.
Carlos shook his head. “They’ve determined it will miss the moon.”
“But the moon’s gravity might be enough to alter the asteroid’s trajectory.”
“At that speed—”
“But it could.” Lauren defied her skeptical audience. “It’s possible.”
Everyone stood quietly, expressions unchanged. After three decades of mass death, it was hard to imagine that any calamity that could miss them actually might. But Nate said only, “Let’s hope you’re right.”
Lauren nodded, then balanced her full pitcher on her hip and walked away. This was butter-churning day; apparently she still intended to do it. Nate wouldn’t have thought about her any further, had he not happened to notice that she passed her father’s door. Lauren continued to the end of the street, to the stone trough where people set out scraps for the village pigs.
With Nate (and now everyone else) watching, Lauren gently tipped her pitcher into the trough. She poured steadily, carefully. First Carri’s old gaunt-sided tabby raced over, with his ragged coat, then the black cat from the smith’s. By the time Lauren had finished pouring, a dozen cats had rushed to partake of the bounty, the adults lapping eagerly and the kittens mewling, scrabbling for a place. Deliberately Lauren drained out the last drop, then turned back home, not looking toward the two dozen eyes that were riveted on her. Wordlessly, she went inside.
When the door shut, the spell was broken. Nate returned to his silent customers. They completed their transactions quietly, avoiding each other’s gaze. One by one they parted, murmuring, “See you on the green.”
Nate and Pat joined the assembly shortly before noon. Nearly the entire village was already there. They had settled over the hill, couples and families spreading out blankets to sit upon. The little children gamboled and played between, delighted with the unexpected holiday, but the older children were silent, like their parents. They, too, had seen much in their short years.
George had set up his telescope at the top of the hill. Clarence sat on a stool beside him, his old portable radio to his ear, using up the precious batteries. Occasionally he made a comment to George, who adjusted his settings. The optical filters he intended to use later stood ready.
The doctor and her assistant went from blanket to blanket, stooping to speak to the inhabitants quietly, almost always leaving a vial behind them. Nate looked at Pat questioningly.
“Valerian,” she said.
Nate nodded. A sedative seemed such a pathetic response…but it was the only weapon they had left to counter the unrelenting assault of the natural world. Nate sighed.
Mayor Parvis walked to the center of the green. He raised his hands for attention, although nearly everyone was watching him anyway. He didn’t have to wait for silence, as so few people were speaking.
“Folks,” he began, “it’s almost that time. I’d like to remind everyone not to watch the asteroid when it comes. The bright light could blind you. Moms and dads, you might want to put your kids under a blanket, or cover their eyes for them. Now, if the asteroid hits as close as they’ve projected, we’ll feel the first shock wave in about thirty seconds. That’s the one from the air-blast. It will likely suck up all the oxygen, but we won’t be in difficulty for long, because the ground shock will follow about a minute behind it and…well…” He shrugged. “We’ll all do our best. Carlos and Amy have opened up their bunker at the base of the hill. If you’d rather wait there, you’re welcome.”
“Will it help?” asked the miller.
“It won’t save you, if that’s what you’re asking. But it might keep your family together when the shock wave comes.”
People went back to not looking at each other.
Clarence called from his post, “It passed the moon twenty minutes ago.” His eyes sought out a youthful face in the crowd. “I’m sorry, Lauren. Trajectory is unchanged.”
Nate felt his stomach fall a little further. Lauren merely nodded and lowered her gaze, groping for her father’s hand. Nate swallowed hard. He hadn’t expected any other outcome, but the death of all hope was a bitter pill.
Mayor Parvis drew a deep breath. “Thank you, Clarence. It seems we’ve only a few minutes to wait now. I’ll shut up so you can spend that time however you see fit. Before I go, I’ll just leave you with the thought that, while what we’ve built here won’t last, the asteroid won’t get everyone. Someone somewhere will outlast this global winter, and build anew. Humanity isn’t finished yet.”
The silence was uniform. The mayor bowed his head, then left his central spot. He walked to where Nate and Pat were sitting. “I don’t see Tom and Agnes.”
“Helen is calving this morning,” Nate answered.
“Ah. I suppose that’s as good a way to spend your time as any.”
Nate couldn’t answer. Pat whispered, “I guess so.”
Parvis touched them both briefly on the shoulder, then walked toward the blanket crowded with his children and grandchildren. He hoisted a toddler high into the air, bouncing her to make her squeal.
Nate sought Pat’s hand. Their fingers twined together. He grappled with his sense of loss. Something gets everyone, he thought. He’d seen so much— murder, genocide, cholera taking off his own children one by one. The heartache was as sharp today as it was on the day each of them had passed. At the time, he’d tried to comfort himself that, although his children wouldn’t live out their lives, someone else’s would. That was still true. Why should it tear his soul so, that those lucky few would not be anyone Nate knew?
Clarence called, “It’s closing.”
A murmur of dismay circulated the hill. Parents summoned children to them. Their soft commands carried to Nate’s ears. “Under the blanket, honey.” “Close your eyes, sweetheart.” A few families gathered their belongings and headed for the bunker cut into the base of the hill. Some of their children were very small.
Nate’s mouth was dry. He settled down onto his side, embracing Pat. They had decided against seeking shelter; the shock wave would probably blow any structure apart anyway. Even if the bunker remained intact, it seemed better to face death in one quick blast than to lie gasping for breath in a windowless tomb.
George yelled from his telescope, “I can see the shadow!”
Nate tightened his grip. He gave his wife a last look of love, earnestly met. Pat knew he loved her; surely she did. He traced her features hungrily— her soft, curly hair; her smooth cheek. Her eyes brimmed.
“Get ready!” George warned.
They snuggled together, shutting their eyes tight.
Suddenly Nate saw the light rush across the sky behind his closed lids. Pat squeezed him furiously. He could feel her heart pounding against his chest. He wanted to give her words of encouragement, but he couldn’t speak.
Light flashed. George called, “Impact, just outside Boston Harbor.”
I should feel it, Nate thought. Something that big— I should feel it.
“The cloud’s going up…There’s more pieces falling. It looks like several strikes.”
It didn’t feel like the end of the world. But it hadn’t felt that way when the gasoline ran out, or when the gangs from New York spread into the countryside, looting as they came. That went on until the virus stopped them. Surely it was better to meet death like this, surrounded by good and caring people. But it was still hard to accept.
“The shock wave’s in the next valley,” George reported. “I can see it coming, like a blur in the air. Trees are snapping like matchsticks… Goodbye, everyone. I’ll see you on the other side.”
Pat clung to him tighter than ever. Nate breathed in the delicious scent of her hair, trembling with her in unison. He whispered, “We had a good life in spite of it all— didn’t we, love?”
Pat’s answer was a sob.
The air groaned, then the world blew apart.
Marie DesJardin published her first story while she was in college and subsequent ones between day jobs. She has one published science fiction novel, For the Time Being, and another looking for a home. Marie writes fantasy, alternative history, humor, and speculative fiction. In her day job, she develops custom documentation and eLearning for a video surveillance company, which means she never has to ask what anyone else is doing, because she already knows. Marie adores all animals, even pointy or squishy ones, and enjoys hiking in the mountains when they are not on fire.